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Congressional Reconstruction Previous Next
Digital History ID 3103



In early 1866, Congressional Republicans, appalled by mass killing of ex-slaves and adoption of restrictive black codes, seized control of Reconstruction from President Johnson. Congress denied representatives from the former Confederate states their Congressional seats, passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and wrote the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, extending citizenship rights to African Americans and guaranteeing them equal protection of the laws. The 14th Amendment also reduced representation in Congress of any southern state that deprived African Americans of the vote. In 1870, the country went even further by ratifying the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave voting rights to black men. The most radical proposals advanced during Reconstruction--to confiscate plantations and redistribute portions to the freemen--were defeated.

In 1867, Congress overrode a presidential veto in order to pass an act that divided the South into military districts that placed the former Confederate states under martial law pending their adoption of constitutions guaranteeing civil liberties to former slaves. The Reconstruction Act of 1867 gave African American men in the South the right to vote three years before ratification of the 15th Amendment. With the vote came representation. Freedmen served in state legislatures and Hiram Revels became the first African American to sit in the U.S. Senate.

Although the law empowered him to remove recalcitrant southern officeholders, President Johnson refused. He also forbade the Army to try violations of federal law in its courts or to prohibit activities that were not in specific violation of federal or local statutes. Many Republicans regarded the president's actions as a systematic effort to thwart the will of Congress and lend aid and comfort to enemies of the Union. The hot-tempered Johnson labeled the Republicans scoundrels in the treasonous tradition of Benedict Arnold.

To prevent the president from obstructing its reconstruction program, Congress passed several laws restricting presidential powers. These laws prevented him from appointing Supreme Court justices and restricted his authority over the army. The Tenure of Office Act barred him from removing, without Senate approval, officeholders, who had been appointed with the advice and consent of the Senate.

In August 1867, Johnson tested the Tenure of Office Act by removing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. This act prompted Republicans in Congress to seek to impeach and remove the president.

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